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COMMENTARY: Avi Kwa Ame offers spiritual sanctuary for all

Last week, President Joe Biden designated Avi Kwa Ame, an area in Southern Nevada that is considered sacred by many Indigenous peoples, as a national monument. It is an enduring tradition, regardless of religious or faith affiliation, to hold such special places as holy ground.

Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments; the Great Mosque of Mecca, the site of pilgrimage for more than 5 million Muslims every year; and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was co-pastor until his assassination in 1968, are just a few examples. These are sites that invite us to a place greater than ourselves. They transcend time. They connect us spiritually to the Earth, to the divine and to each other.

Avi Kwa Ame, or “Spirit Mountain,” has long been a space of immense spiritual and cultural significance for 10 Yuman-speaking tribes, as well as the Hopi and Chemeheuvi Paiute. It covers nearly 500,000 acres and encompasses the center of the creation story of the Yuman tribes, the place they believe their ancestors entered the world. Petroglyphs from Indigenous communities who lived on the land thousands of years ago exist within the Avi Kwa Ame boundaries.

Development projects increasingly threatened the land of Avi Kwa Ame, which caused the Indigenous tribes who have long lived in these lands to work with local and federal groups in Nevada to determine the boundaries and rules of what a monument might look like. Now Avi Kwa Ame is protected, ensuring that all peoples — especially those for whom the space holds spiritual, religious and cultural significance — can enjoy the wonder of this sacred part of God’s creation for generations.

Avi Kwa Ame is also a space of ecological importance, stewarded for thousands of years by Indigenous communities with their deep knowledge of and love for the land. The new monument contains diverse habitats for a variety of plant and animal species and is home to more than 30 sensitive or threatened species, including the desert tortoise, desert bighorn sheep and the elusive Gila monster. It offers an important migratory habitat for bighorn sheep, along with many species of birds. On the eastern edge sits a portion of the largest Joshua tree forest in the world (the remaining portion crosses over the Nevada border and is protected by the state of California), including some of the oldest known Joshua trees, estimated to be more than 900 years old. To lose this habitat would have been a tragedy.

The United States was first and foremost birthed on principles of religious freedom. The laws that protect the free exercise of religion are embedded in the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Creating national monuments to protect sacred ground is a natural extension of the spirit under which this nation was founded. Avi Kwa Ame enjoys protection under an umbrella that safeguards all our notions of sacredness and embraces the “spirit mountains” of all traditions and communities. These places are for the healing of everyone. They are the sanctuaries that free us from stresses and uncertainties, places open for all to let go and find moments of prayer, rest, peace, and renewal.

In a time when seemingly non-stop disagreement in our nation has become the norm, Avi Kwa Ame’s message of meaningful connection cannot be emphasized enough.

Cassandra Carmichael is executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (www.nrpe.org).

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